Monday, 17 May 2010

April 13th

I sit on the western side of democracy monument. Carton boxes that were lying around yesterday, scattered on the pavement, have been organized in blocks. On them thousands of different hands have written their own message: offenses to the government, questions about the government or other institutions and their roles, or whatever they want to say, most of the time in Thai, occasionally in English. These boxes have been transformed into a massive blackboard for people to express themselves on. An older artist collected some money from friends with this idea in mind and bought them to the street few days ago. Today, the beginning of proper Songkran celebrations which will run for the next two days, him and a group of collaborators rearranged them, creating a wall that almost covers a side of the monument.

The boxes have been attached one to the other with iron mesh and fixed with red ropes directly attached to nails, hammered into the monument’s pavement. A group of three artists showed up and started drawing on top of the messages a massive Democracy monument in black, leaning on a side, symbol of what they see as the ongoing destruction of democracy in Thailand.

In the middle of the street dotted with people, covered by the thin shadow casted by the monument a younger artist starts drawing the outlines, comparing the proportions of his lines with the monument behind the cartoon wall. Around two older couples stop to stare, puzzled. The older artist, wearing a white hat from which grey hair pop out on the sides, checks and at times picks a brush to corrects with firm hands the outlines, drawn by his younger helper. Soon a small crowd gathers around, sitting on the asphalt, using the little shadow casted by cars parked around to protect from the burning sun. One man, in his fifties, sits close to me and asks were I am from. We start talking.

He tells me about the boxes that he participated in buying and bringing there. He told me that people started writing on them on the 10th, after the helicopters came around and dropped tear gas on the crowd. The boxes were laid out around the monument only the day after. He asks me how to translate in English “abolish aristocracy” and walks to the painter with the piece of paper I wrote, as the monument is being filled with black paint. The monument behind, the real one, had been wrapped in a multicolored piece of cloth, with a red wrapping on the top and a huge red cloth around the monument saying “give power back to the people”.

As the shadow casted by the cars extends more people gather to watch the emerging painting, ten or fifteen at this point. A young girl passes by with a leaking water gun, blue as the small tank on her back. A couple in Hawaiian red shirts with white flowers stamped on is taking pictures. The younger painter distributes thick layers of black paint on the large cartoon surface. He is in his thirties wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and black sun glasses. He steps back to check the painting as he frown his thick black mustaches. He goes back and stands on top of a table, both of his feet on big cans of paint. Behind him the voice of a man direct people through the three lines of monks and older seated on chairs on the northern side of the monument, there to receive Songkran’s water offerings. The monks’ robes give to the place another shade of brown. Red shirts walk through the lines, pouring small quantities of water into their hands full of orchid flowers, pass to a lower line of sitting elders, and then come up above them to pour water on a golden Buddha icon.

The Songkran atmosphere in Ratchadamnoen is very different from Ratchaprasong. There younger crowds throw water at each other in the street, mixing with foreigners and loud pop music, no offering to the elders is happening, substituted to a larger dance party filling the intersection in Pratunam. Back in Ratchadamnoen, at the beginning of Dinso road, people crowd around the parked military tanks which have also been transformed in boards for red shirts’ political messages. A young father pulls his small child up to sit on the tank, and take a picture as the kid looks around lost with his red head band calling for dissolution. Behind him the tanks swarm with people trying to break some small part and bring it back home.

At the eastern side of the monument the coffins of the people who died on Saturday painted in red stand on tables. Long lines of people wait to have a moment in front of the coffins or to chat briefly and give support to the relatives of the dead, who stand in front of the wooden boxes, pictures of their loved ones tightly held in their hands. A voice behind them, coming from the stage in Saphan Phanfa, tells ironically “We are very lucky to have Apishit as our prime minister”. Each coffin is covered in flowers and brings a picture of the body inside, and a copy of their national ID. Names ,faces, ages, residences, forever printed in pictures of many. The lines of people coming for a gaze, a picture, or a hand posed on the coffins just for a second seems endless, overlooked by the top of Democracy Monument, covered in red cloth. On the pavement, also covered with handwriting, hundreds of incense sticks burn in three big jars. On the sidewalks other long lines of people gathers around some stall registering people as signed members of UDD and giving them an ID. This seems to be the more evident short term effect of the military attack. Crowds, families, interminable lines of silent people waiting to be photographed and receive a red shirts’ member card. Many of them have been at the protest since weeks but only now decided to get formal membership to the group. Three or four stands along Ratchadamnoen road harbor this mass of people buying for 50 bath the plastic card holder, filling a paper form, and waiting for hours to be put in front of a red backdrop and a digital camera, before receiving their plastic card, for another 100 bath. Inside the stands four or five younger supporters sit in front of laptops and small tripods with digital camera, volunteering their time in this seemingly endless operation of recording names and faces. The attack that was supposed to instill fear and despair seem to have created a stronger push to be formally involved. “We won’t go home until we win” tells me an old man, as his wrinkles bend into a sun-burned smile. Behind him a young couple pretend to be fighting among them, as the young woman giggles. Few steps away a kid plays with a small plastic water gun, following a dog. Besides them, an older motorcycle taxi, wait silently in line, the vest adding another tonality of color to the scene. On a side, small groups of people help each other to fill the form correctly, as they pass their pens to the next one. Thailand’s humanity fills these lines, silently waiting to their documentation of political participation.

On the opposite side of the monument a single piece of white cloth hangs from scaffolding. On it just one eloquent word in red: “SAD”, in English. The brown carton boxes wall in front of it shine in the orange sun, as a timid sunset emerges from the road, reflected on the beige wings of the monument.

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